2017-07-13 / Business News

Mini golf is big business

Florida putt-putt courses are popular attractions as ‘clean family fun’
Florida Weekly Correspondent

“How long will this newest fad last?”

— Popular Science Monthly, November 1930, on miniature golf

Now, 87 years after that question was posed, miniature golf courses still dot the American landscape with new ones popping up around Florida.

Tropical Breeze Fun Park in Cape Coral opened in April and claims the world’s longest mini-golf hole — 264 feet. To put that in perspective, it’s more than 50 yards farther from tee to hole than the distance on a football field from the goal line to the 50-yard line.

The business model that made miniature golf a success between the world wars is likely what keeps it going in 2017, 90 years after an entrepreneur named Garnet Carter in 1927 built the first course, which was in Lookout Mountain, Tenn.

“What I like is what I liked 20 years ago,” said Bob Trimarchi, one of Tropical Breeze’s two owners, along with David Lanaux. “I know it sounds corny but it’s putting a smile on people’s faces. It’s good, clean family fun.”

Tropical Breeze Fun Park in Cape Coral just recently opened on Santa Barbara south of Hancock Bridge Parkway. 
COURTESY PHOTO Tropical Breeze Fun Park in Cape Coral just recently opened on Santa Barbara south of Hancock Bridge Parkway. COURTESY PHOTO The game’s health also appears strong on Florida’s east coast, where other new courses have been built in recent years.

The South Florida Science Center and Aquarium opened its 18-hole miniature golf course in November. It was designed by two men with names very familiar in the world of bigger golf courses — Jim Fazio and Gary Nicklaus. Mr. Fazio is a well-known golf course architect with his own eponymous company — Jim Fazio Golf Designs. Mr. Nicklaus is the son of legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus and also played on the pro tour.

Lew Crampton, the science center’s president and CEO, said both men donated their services to design the course, which cost about $250,000 to build.

A butterfly garden is home for the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium course. 
CAPEHART PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTO A butterfly garden is home for the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium course. CAPEHART PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTO It’s not a typical miniature golf course. And not just because it doesn’t have either a clown’s mouth or windmill.

“It is set within a butterfly garden,” Mr. Crampton said.

And it has a science name — the Conservation Course. It’s designed to be educational as well as fun. Each hole is named for a plant or animal in the Everglades and each hole has a sign with educational information on it. Hole names include the Great Horned Owl and the American Crocodile.

So, far, according to Mr. Crampton, the miniature golf course has generated $55,000 in revenue since its opening last fall. The course’s purpose is two-fold for players: Have fun and teach science.

Russ, Tyler, Joyce and Lily Evans of Lake Worth play the Conservation Course at the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium in West Palm Beach. Russ, Tyler, Joyce and Lily Evans of Lake Worth play the Conservation Course at the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium in West Palm Beach. Only three years before the Conservation Course opened, Lighthouse Cove opened in Jupiter. The facility has recently added new props or obstacles to its course as well as adding a 6,000-gallon saltwater tank. Its on-site restaurant, the Burger Shack, added an open-air pavilion with seating for 90 guests.

As with many if not all Florida miniature golf courses, certain months are busier than others at Lighthouse Cove.

“We’re very busy 10 months,” said Tim Glita, Lighthouse’s general manager.

The only two slow months, he said, are August and September. 

As a sign of the game’s popularity, Lighthouse opened a second location last year in Cocoa Beach. Mr. Glita said Lighthouse owners are looking at a third location. A site hasn’t been selected yet.

What attracted families in 1930 when Herbert Hoover was president and the Depression was just deepening its hold on America after the 1929 stock market crash is also the case now, according to miniature golf operators.

Heather Bergeron, manager of Fish Cove Adventure Golf in Port Charlotte, echoed Mr. Trimarchi’s sentiments, ones that operators may have used nearly nine decades ago.

“We sell fun,” Ms. Bergeron told Florida Weekly in a telephone conversation.

The conversation was then interrupted.

“Can you hold on?” Ms. Bergeron asked Florida Weekly. “I have a customer.”

She dealt with her customer and could be heard saying, “You guys have fun.”

Fish Cove offers two 18-hole courses, plenty of room for fun. When she returned to the phone call, Ms. Bergeron said, “That’s what I always tell them.”

Chris Frizzell, general manager of Jungle Golf in Fort Myers, believes that part of the game’s allure is that it demands attention. That’s attention to the challenge of making shots but also to friends and families who play together, making it a social activity instead of social media.

“Your phone doesn’t help,” said Mr. Frizzell, who has been at Jungle Golf for 10 years. “People actually have to talk together.”

So much has changed since Jungle Golf opened in 1978, let alone since that 1930 Popular Science article with this headline: “Why Midget Golf Swept Country.”

Mr. Frizzell said his facility has steady growth of between 3 and 10 percent a year.

Of course, now that it’s summer, not as many customers play miniature golf in Florida.

Not surprisingly, a great bulk of the business in Florida at these courses comes when the weather isn’t scorching hot and the danger of lightning strikes is not omnipresent.

“I would say 50 percent of our business is done in six to eight weeks of the year,” Mr. Frizzell said.

That would be around Christmas and New Year’s and around Easter, according to the Jungle Golf general manager.

Although tourists would seem to be a natural part of the clientele in miniature golf, Mr. Trimarchi said Tropical Breeze wasn’t designed for tourists and snowbirds.

“We opened this for residents of Cape Coral and the Cape Coral area,” Mr. Trimarchi said.

Mr. Trimarchi said he has embraced the Disney approach to customer service, aiming to keep the facility spotless and treat each customer as he or she wants to be treated.

The name Tropical is also enhanced, he said, by the landscaping that includes various types of palm trees that include canary date, coconut, foxtail and royal palm.

The Southwest Florida miniature golf course landscape also includes a facility a short drive from Tropical Breeze Fun Park’s location on Santa Barbara Boulevard. Mike Greenwell’s Bat-A-Ball & Family Fun Park on Pine Island Road, a Cape Coral entertainment fixture since 1992, includes a 19-hole miniature golf course.

Just like with regulation golf, miniature golf courses demand attention from management. There are trees and bushes and grass that need to be trimmed or cut, just like on the big courses. Rain and wind can damage holes over night so when workers arrive in the morning there are often new tasks to tackle.

“You have to think of it as a large animal,” Mr. Frizzell said. “A horse or an elephant.”

Horses and elephants need food and water. Miniature golf courses need attention.

“You have to take care of it like a living thing,” Mr. Frizzell said.

The Florida landscape is dotted with other miniature golf courses such as Castle Golf in Fort Myers, Coral Cay in Naples, Golf Safari in Bonita Springs and Adventure Mini Golf in Lake Worth.

So, 87 years after Popular Science Monthly asked the about the future of America’s “newest fad” it doesn’t appear to be going away.

What did the magazine predict in 1930 of its future?

“Showmanship and mechanical art will decide the fate of America’s newest big industry — miniature golf,” Popular Science Magazine wrote. ¦

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